The land of passes

Visiting Ladakh has been on my mind for many years. As I grew up, the reasons for the visit changed, but the destination did not. Reasons ranged from wanting to see snow, experiencing snowfall to visiting higher altitude places to seeing glacial melt rivers. Also, it has been my recent obsession chasing the darkest locations in the country to glimpse of the breathtaking view of the Milkyway Galaxy. And finally, of course, visiting an alternate school founded by Mr Sonam Wangchok: SECMOL – Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement Of Ladakh.

My wife Priyanka, a wildlife researcher, and I arrived at Leh on the early morning hours of 11th June 2019. The temperature was 7 degrees celsius outside. The elevation of Leh from mean sea level is about 3500 meters (nearly 11200 feet). The first day was mostly spent at the villa where we stayed. The struggle before we got acclimatized was real. The actual plan of heading to Nubra Valley on the second day was delayed by a day because of this struggle. Fortunately for us, we had one more day at Leh. We decided to make the best use of this delay. We planned to visit SECMOL that day.

A school for ‘idiots’

After a short visit to Hemis Monastery in the morning hours, we headed to SECMOL post lunch. We entered the premises, and there was no one in sight for us to get in touch. But the place pulled us in. As we slowly walked, we could see a couple of girls running and playing around. We reached out to them, and they helped us get in touch with Mr Kunchok, who would eventually show us around the school. We headed to the reception with Kunchok. He told us that free visiting hours are from morning 10 am to 1 pm. Post lunch it is chargeable at 300 rupees per person and asked us if we would be interested. Before he could finish asking we both said YES in unison. He briefed about when the school was founded and played a video by the founder Mr Sonam Wanchok.

Kunchok with one of the structures built by alumni of the school Stanzin Phuntsog and Norphal.

As Mr Kunchok was explaining, the school was founded primarily to give a platform to traditional school defined ‘idiots’, for the ones who are deemed useless by society. And as expected the eligibility criteria to get into this school is that a kid should have failed in his 10th grade. In fact, he shared the stories where there are kids who have failed in their 10th grade more than 3 times, and after having joined and completed courses at SECMOL have become successful in life. One of the kids who had failed 5 times in 10th grade eventually became the minister for education at Ladakh hill council at the age of 27. The philosophy of the school was this: 3 Hs – Head, Heart and Hand. A bright Head, A kind Heart and A skilful Hand! And the school in every way is able to fulfil this! Both of us could already feel the positivity of the place even before we got out of the reception to actually see the school.

The source of power for the school

Ice hockey in the cold desert

The school lay amidst the mountains and the view of the region from every direction was mesmerising. There was no external source of power to the school. The entire school was solar powered. There are 3 solar panels that source power from the Sun. Little further from here, there lies a big patch of open ground. Looked just like a big playground. But it turned out that it was an ICE HOCKEY ground. Kunchok say by winter there would be snowfall and temperatures go as low as minus 20 degree Celsius and the water remains frozen, a fertile condition to place ice hockey. But where does the water come from? He said there would be months of preparation, which would involve bringing water and filling within the preset perimeter of the ground. Students would pour water by around 8 pm in the night, 12 am in the morning and again at 3 am in the morning for weeks together. For the first few weeks, the land just keeps soaking in water, until a point where the water starts showing up on the surface. With subfreezing temperatures, the water freezes over the land.

The not so obvious ‘Ice Hockey’ ground that gets transformed during winter.

This is sheer hard work. When asked why all these sleepless nights to eventually play ice hockey, he said ice hockey to Ladakh is like what cricket is to rest of India. It is their passion. And the school primarily focused on women’s ice hockey. There was a time when the team from SECMOL tried to propose introducing national women’s ice hockey team. The sheer determination and the passion for the game eventually made women’s ice hockey a real thing in Ladakh. Today there is a national ice hockey team in India and nearly half of the players are from SECMOL.

Science in action

The story was indeed inspiring, and with a feeling fresh in our hearts we visited girls hostel. The architecture of the hostels (both girls and boys) focused primarily on keeping the insides always at a constant temperature of around 15 degree Celsius. The walls were thick, with double glass windows. During winters they roll down thick plastic sheets at a slope and nail it to the ground. The sheet aids in acting like a greenhouse keeping the insides of the building warm. The windows are positioned in such a way to receive a lot of sunlight. Yes, there was a science application everywhere.

Experiencing democracy

The library is accessible 24×7 and all 365-days a year. The book collection is diverse, and a lot of people donate books to the library every year. The library student book entry log, maintenance and all other related works are done by the students themselves. In fact, every aspect of the school is run by the students. To encourage entrepreneurship or to explain trade in general, there is a small store run by students, and the finances are managed by them. All students get to work on everything from farming to maintaining library to running the store to maintaining solar panels and more, on a rotational basis, and they will have to present on their experiences on whatever they have done. The entire school is run with democratically elected parliament with students being the members and holding different portfolios.

Sustainability is more of a need than a choice

Dry toilets with rooms below where excreta gets composted

There are only dry toilets. Human excreta are collected in rooms below, and are covered with sawdust, and when enough time passes they are composted. This is later used as manure for the farm. Water availability is always a challenge and such techniques are extremely sustainable. The school strives to be completely self-sustainable and has received several awards and recognition within the country and across the world.

Farming land maintained by students

Across the campus, we were able to find quite a lot of varieties of trees and plants, primarily, apricot trees! Farming is done by the students, and this ensures the necessary food supplies for the school. Of course, there are a few items that come from outside. The food is vegetarian. Very cold temperatures increase the shelf life of the food. During winter the subfreezing temperatures make it impossible to farm, but the harvest during summer and spring are stocked in natural cold storage for consumption. We, in fact, visited the place where food was being stored.

Reflections on my thoughts

By this time, the sun was shining brightly, and the sky was crystal clear. I couldn’t help but think that this could be an ideal place for stargazing. We headed back to the reception to sign off and give written feedback. We were very curious to know if we could volunteer there. Kunchok said there are several volunteers who come every year, and it can be applied for through their website. There are several categories of volunteers that can be found on the website. We are seriously thinking about it!

As we were travelling back to Leh in our cab, a thought that was long wandering in the depths of my mind swam up to the surface. The thought that learning science is an important life skill not just for kids, but everyone. And in a place like Ladakh, where the environment is harsh, natural resources like water are scarce and depleting, understanding and applying science and technology can be a saviour to the entire community, the region’s natural resources and several other species including the ones that are endemic to the region. Effects of climate change were evident in Ladakh, where the glaciers are melting at a dangerously faster rate, it is only accelerating further. This is true regardless of where we are. My city Coimbatore has got several issues, like water scarcity, that can only be solved by scientific solutions. As the thought was feeding enough into mind I was inspired and determined to contribute in whatever way I could. I couldn’t wait to get back to Coimbatore and share my experiences with my students and others.

There were several other experiences that Ladakh offered us, but the visit to SECMOL would always be unique and inspiring. It was an experience wherein several thoughts and idea ricocheted in our minds. We left the place both happy and sad, happy for having been there, but sad for not being able to spend more time! By reading this, you may get some idea or feel as what this school is about, but to truly experience it, you will have to visit the place! We are already planning to visit it again!

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